From an evolutionary gene’s-eye perspective, the genes are immortal, and our role, the meaning of life, is to perpetuate the genes. In a few centuries, all traces of our existence as human individuals — memories of us, all our accomplishments –will likely be gone and forgotten, except for genes that survive from those of us who successfully reproduced through the generations.
But, of course, we don’t experience the world from a gene’s eye evolutionary perspective. One experiences the world as an individual person, not as a gene dispenser (fun as that may be). The joy we get from parenting comes not from some abstract generic idea of gene propagation, but from specific love and interaction with our own children — making your own baby son giggle uncontrollably when you make ridiculous animal noises, the bittersweet emotional rush you feel as you watch your daughter walk down the aisle. We care about ourselves and others as persons, not as a gene menagerie. Humans create our own meanings.
But — reproduction as the answer to life’s meaning cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Genetic evolution is the meaning of biologic life, in that it is the why and how of it, as well as the stock of future biological existence. The genes that survive — and in turn the organisms they make — are the winners in the existence game. Can we just dismiss this when considering the meaning of our own individual human lives? Sure, evolution itself does not have a specific direction or teleology, and genes themselves are not conscious, so there is not meaning in that sense. But evolution cannot just be shrugged off as something apart from us, take it or leave it. It is the biological explanation of who we are, how we got here, and the diversity of life. Over billions of years, life left the oceans, stretched limbs to cover the earth, raised wings to fly. Underlying it all are the replicating molecules that continue to copy themselves even now. We owe our existence to this process, and our future depends on it. Perhaps the meaning of your life as a biological creature is to make babies and help ensure the survival of life. In discussing the children she had with Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan put it like this: “When we come closest to each other we can create new life forms that carry on that continuity that stretches back all those billions of years, and in them are the generations of human beings who have struggled. That is magnificent.”
By making babies, we continue life’s pageant. In children, we cheat death.